The Physiology of the Employee

Honoré de Balzac

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  • Wakefield Press
  • ISBN 978-1-939663-04-7
  • 160 pages
  • Softcover with flaps, English
  • 17.5 x 12 x 1.6 cm

If Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living addressed one crucial pillar of modernity—the “mode itself, fashion—his Physiology of the Employee examines another equally potent cornerstone to the modern era: bureaucracy, and all the cogs and wheels of which it is composed. Long before Franz Kafka described the nightmarish metaphysics of office bureaucracy, Balzac had undertaken his own exploration of the dust-laden, stifling environment of the paper-pusher in all of his roles and guises. Bureaucracy, as he defined it: “a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs. In this guidebook, published for mass consumption in 1841, Balzac’s classic theme of melodramatic ambition plays itself out within the confined, unbreathable space of proto-cubicle, filtered through the restricted scale of the pocket handbook. The template for such later novels such as The Bureaucrats, and one of the first significant texts to grapple with the growing role of the bureaucrat, this physiology reads like a birding field guide in its presentation of the various classifications of the office employee, from the Intern to the Clerk (all ten species, from Dapper to Bootlicker to Drudger) to Office Manager, Department Head, Office Boy and Pensioner. The job titles may change over the years, and paper pushing has perhaps evolved into email forwarding, but the taxonomy remains the same. In our twenty-first-century crisis of employment, jobs themselves have evolved into a form of currency, and the question continues to loom: when will it be quitting time?

Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), was a true monolith of French letters, one of the fathers of realism, and a great abuser of coffee. His Human Comedy ended up consisting of over one hundred interlinked stories and novels, and featured a cast of some two thousand characters. One of the earliest components of this enormous body of work was a never-completed four-part Pathology of Social Life. Balzac’s physiologies and nonfiction sociological studies read like the casebooks of a sociological Sherlock Holmes, and remain the least-known components to Balzac’s sprawling Comedy.

An unwitting revolutionary”—Victor Hugo

“[Balzac] groups a complete history of French society from which, even in economic details … I have learned more than from all the prefessional historians, economists, and statisticians of the period altogether”—Friedrich Engels